Every World Cup, a certain amount of focus from the public and the media shifts towards what kinds of surprises we’ve seen over the course of the tournament, whether good or bad. There are teams that come out of nowhere to shock the footballing world and win the hearts of fans around the globe who previously knew little to nothing about them, while there are teams who are expected to go far in the tournament only to give efforts on the pitch that could be described as poor at best. In this list, we’ll be counting down teams on both sides of that coin: first, we’ll be showing the five most surprisingly good teams from this year’s tournament in Brazil, contrasted by the five most surprisingly rubbish sides.
Some teams managed to captivate the footballing world by virtue of their massive fan support, extremely solid goalkeeping and masterful on-field tactics – not to mention giving it a great run throughout the tournament despite the loss of their best players. On the flipside, some teams faltered through playing with outdated tactics, having a sense of division and disharmony off the pitch, and/or the team itself not being able to gel properly on it. Whatever the case for each of these teams, it’s just further proof that the World Cup is one of the most entertaining and unpredictable tournaments in all of sports, and shows that events like these can make the four-year wait for every World Cup seem so, so worth it.
Of course, there have been fairly predictable outcomes in this World Cup, such as the fact that the “surprising” teams did not make it further than the quarterfinals at best – the four semifinalists were teams that are considered among football’s heavyweights. That said, this tournament has been far from boring. Here are the five most surprising and five most disappointing teams in this year’s World Cup.
5. Most Surprising: Algeria
Of the three teams not named Belgium in Group H, Algeria were probably the least heralded. South Korea have consistently been one of Asia’s superpowers and are still well-known for their fourth-place finish at the World Cup in 2002, and Russia also came in with fairly high expectations as a team armed with offensive weapons like Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin and a reputable manager in Fabio Capello. Instead, Algeria surprised the world thanks to strong goalkeeping from Raïs M’Bolhi and goals from Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani and several others up until their loss in the Round of 16 to Germany.
4. Most Surprising: United States
As a country that has not traditionally embraced soccer in the past despite hosting the World Cup in 1994 – not to mention playing in this year’s tournament while leaving their all-time greatest player off the squad – the United States managed to captivate a nation in Brazil by making it past the group of death despite only winning their first game against Ghana. The solid performances of the German-American players, as well as the 16-save performance from Tim Howard against Belgium helped make the Americans one of the more surprising sides of the tournament, and the fact that fans in places like Chicago and Kansas City went to viewing parties in droves only emphasizes that.
3. Most Surprising: Colombia
Having lost their marquee player Radamel Falcao to a torn ACL prior to the tournament, some were skeptical about Colombia’s chances of progressing in a relatively evenly-matched Group C. Instead, Los Cafeteros proved those skeptics very, very wrong: led by offensive firepower from James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez, Colombia cruised through their group and got themselves all the way to the quarterfinals, where they ended up falling 2-1 to hosts Brazil. With six goals and a rumoured transfer to Real Madrid, James will at least come close to winning the Golden Boot at this year’s tournament, and Colombia have now established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in South American football.
2. Most Surprising: Mexico
After a shambolic qualifying campaign that saw El Tri make it to the finals virtually by the skin of their teeth, this Mexican team managed to surprise many based on their performances in Group A. Following a 1-0 victory against Cameroon that could have been bigger had it not been for Giovani dos Santos having two good goals ruled offside, Mexico closed their group stage campaign with a big 3-1 victory against Croatia to seal progression to the knockout round. Their Round of 16 exit may have been the same old story compared to their previous World Cup campaigns, but this Mexican team saw the cards stacked against them and rose to the occasion.
1. Most Surprising: Costa Rica
Despite the fact that their Cinderella run in the World Cup finals had to end thanks to a penalty shootout where Dutch manager Louis van Gaal made a gamble by subbing off goalkeepers that paid off in spades, Costa Rica have got plenty to be proud of following their performances in this tournament. An undefeated run in the tough as nails Group D where they were expected to be the whipping boys, followed by a shootout victory against Greece, helped Los Ticos endear themselves to the footballing world like they never had before. Following the tournament, players such as Joel Campbell, Keylor Navas and Yeltsin Tejeda have been linked with transfers to big clubs.
5. Most Disappointing: Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (tied)
Although no African team was ever really considered to be among the teams to beat in this year’s World Cup, these two are tied in terms of their disappointment on the pitch for very different reasons. In Ghana’s case, the team itself crumbled before their final game against Portugal despite looking fairly solid against Germany and the United States after Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng were sent home for differing disciplinary reasons. For Cote d’Ivoire, their disappointment comes through being in a very beatable Group C and still not managing to make it past the group stage after losing their last match to Greece, in what is more than likely Didier Drogba’s last World Cup.
4. Most Disappointing: England
Okay, so England have built up a sort of reputation for underwhelming their home fans and their typically sky-high expectations for each major tournament. However, the team came in with little expectation this time despite boasting several young, exciting players (eg. Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley) and still managed to disappoint. Two hard-fought and unlucky 2-1 losses to Italy and Uruguay put them out of the running early, followed up by a drab 0-0 draw with Costa Rica. Despite this being their worst-ever World Cup showing, manager Roy Hodgson has been backed to stay on by the FA through 2016, and one can only hope their new generation can develop fast enough.
3. Most Disappointing: Portugal
While they were indeed drawn in the group of death for this year’s tournament, Portugal still had Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the best players in the world – and a competent supporting cast that should have seen them through to the knockout stages for a Round of 16 matchup with Belgium. Sadly for CR7 and co, that’s not how things went down: an opening day blowout by a score of 4-0 at the hands of Germany set the tone for things to come, as they would not get a win until beating Ghana 2-1 in their last group game, missing out on the Round of 16 below the United States thanks to inferior goal difference.
2. Most Disappointing: Italy
With players like Mario Balotelli, Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini among Italy’s best in Brazil this summer – not to mention an opening game win against England by a score of 2-1 – expectations for the Azzurri’s tournament in general were big. However, the team wouldn’t score a single goal after that victory against the English: two 1-0 losses to Costa Rica and Uruguay, the latter of which was overshadowed by Chiellini being bit by Luis Suarez, booked Italy’s return trip home. Much of the blame was aimed toward the referee of the game against Uruguay for not sending Suarez off during the match, but one also has to wonder what would have happened had Cesare Prandelli not left Giuseppe Rossi off the squad.
1. Most Disappointing: Spain
How the mighty have fallen. As a team that were expected to at least get to the semifinals, if not repeat their victories at the 2010 World Cup as well as Euro 2012, Spain shocked football fanatics the world over with their horrid displays during the group stage. Their 5-1 loss to the Netherlands set the tone for what was to come, as their 2-0 loss to Chile sealed their surprise early exit. The tiki-taka style of football that won Spain titles in the past didn’t work nearly as well this time, and players such as Xavi, David Villa and potentially Iker Casillas have surely played their last games in a Spanish uniform.